It’s a rule of Washington that if you’re arguing over process, you’re losing. That holds especially true here, because the procedural laments are not only procedural, they’re bogus. Republicans contend that the new House rules to govern the inquiry deny Trump basic elements of due process and that the previous handling of the investigation was so flawed it taints any proceedings going forward.
“If you were in the legal term, it’d be the fruit from the poisonous tree,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.). That’s ridiculous. The House conducted its initial proceedings in secret — just like the Benghazi committee — but Republican lawmakers from the relevant committees were allowed to attend and ask questions. Administration lawyers were not present — following the example set by House Republicans, who, when they were in the majority, barred government lawyers from attending such depositions. Even assuming some imaginary unfairness, take McCarthy’s argument to its logical conclusion: Congress should ignore video of Trump shooting someone on Fifth Avenue because it was improperly obtained?
It would be more concerning if the rules governing the next phase of the proceedings were unfair. But they are effectively identical to the procedures employed in the Nixon and Clinton impeachments, letting Republicans subpoena witnesses and documents, subject to the approval of the majority. When the House Judiciary Committee takes up the matter, Trump’s own lawyers will be allowed to call and cross-examine witnesses. This right may be suspended if Trump “unlawfully refuse[s]” to produce documents or let witnesses testify — a reasonable threat given the administration’s refusal to cooperate with what the White House described as “this illegitimate impeachment proceeding.”
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) denounced the Democrats for conducting a “Soviet-Style impeachment scheme,” arriving on the House floor with a poster showing a photograph of Red Square. Seriously? Republicans might have legitimate quibbles with the Democrats’ rules, but this is hardly a Stalin-esque show trial. The leap to portray it as such only underscores Republicans’ increasing desperation.
Which is warranted, because the facts keep piling up against Trump. “There is nothing in that phone call that is wrong or impeachable,” McCarthy said of Trump’s July 25 conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky.
Nothing wrong, except that the call was so alarming to Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, an Iraq War veteran detailed to the National Security Council, that he alerted a White House lawyer. “I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen, and I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government’s support of Ukraine,” Vindman said. And Trump’s problem is not one damning phone call, it is a months-long operation to corrupt U.S. foreign policy to help his reelection campaign and, it seems increasingly likely, financially benefit his friends and donors.
Now the inquiry is poised to enter what is, for Trump and Republicans, a dangerous new phase. Imagine Vindman in his dress-blue uniform testifying in public about his horror and alarm about hearing Trump ask Zelensky for help against a political foe. Imagine top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine William B. Taylor Jr. — West Point graduate, Vietnam veteran, lifelong public servant — looking out at hostile Russian-led forces across a war-damaged bridge and describing his anguish that “more Ukrainians would undoubtedly die without the U.S. assistance.” Aid that Trump was holding up for political gain. A single video is worth a thousand leaked opening-statement transcripts.
Does any of this matter in a country with political divisions so deeply entrenched? There are two recent data points — one sobering, one hopeful. The sobering point is that not a single Republican House member appeared disturbed enough by Trump’s behavior to even vote to authorize the inquiry. How could anyone look at this evidence and not conclude that further investigation is warranted?
The hopeful event is the shift in public opinion. A new Post-ABC News poll found 49 percent in favor of Trump’s impeachment and removal from office. Compare that with a July survey, before the Ukraine news broke, that found just 37 percent supported the far milder step of launching an impeachment inquiry. Facts can change minds, and more facts are coming; they are not likely to be in Trump’s favor.
And changed minds, in key states, can change lawmakers’ entrenched positions. At the moment, it seems highly unlikely that any but a few congressional Republicans would vote to impeach or convict Trump. Trump will be in serious trouble if — probably only if — Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) concludes that continuing to back Trump will endanger his majority. That’s nowhere near true yet, but there is some worrisome polling for Republicans in states such as Colorado and North Carolina. Don’t count on Trump’s ouster, but keep an eye on endangered Republican senators.